Restrictions on Christian Capitalists

Matthew 6:

21 Jesus said to him, "If you wish to be perfect, go sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."

22 But when the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he was very rich.

23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, "I tell you the truth, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven!

24 Again I say, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter into the kingdom of God."

25 The disciples were greatly astonished when they heard this and said, "Then who can be saved?"

26 Jesus looked at them and replied, "This is impossible for mere humans, but for God all things are possible."

(NET Bible®)

Can a Christian be a successful capitalist? Jesus said it would be impossible, or at least very hard, so hard that it’s not worth the bother. Perhaps he was exaggerating a bit in the passage above; Jesus used hyperbole now and then in order to shout across the ages.* But even if so, why was he shouting? I have already proposed several theories:

*The word translated as “camel” is similar to that for rope. George Lamsa’s translation of the Aramaic Bible uses “rope.” But note that you cannot get a rope through a sewing needle without divine intervention…

But there is more, more that comes from the Old Testament. Consider the passages below:

Proverbs 11:

28 The one who trusts in his riches will fall,

but the righteous will flourish like a green leaf.

Proverbs 16:

8 Better to have a little with righteousness

than to have abundant income without justice.

Proverbs 19:

1 Better is a poor person who walks in his integrity

than one who is perverse in his speech and is a fool.

(NET Bible®)

These passages seem to condemn riches, but consider these passages from the same book:

Proverbs 8:

17 I love those who love me,

and those who seek me find me.

18 Riches and honor are with me,

long-lasting wealth and righteousness.

Proverbs 19:

8 The one who acquires wisdom loves himself;

the one who preserves understanding will prosper.

(NET Bible®)

The book of Proverbs is filled with wealth building insights. It was compiled by a very rich man (Solomon). The distinction between righteous wealth and filthy lucre goes way back.

Here in the West Christians are not persecuted. Until recently, Christians got to be the persecutors. So building wealth as a Christian is easier than it was two millennia ago. But there are still restrictions. Exactly how many restrictions I cannot say with authority. If Christians are to live under the Law and under further commandments given in the New Testament, then the aspiring Christian capitalist does indeed strive under quite a few handicaps. I will list quite a few below. I hope this list is overly picky, for I cannot claim to live up to all its standards.

And just as I wrestle with the idea of Christians avoiding wealth getting in general vs. having something to give and having some clout in society, I wonder about the net benefit of strictly following all the potential restrictions below. If Christian capitalists handicap themselves severely, then wealth and power accrue to the ungodly. We may yet see a return to the practice of persecuting Christians…

Vice and the Entertainment Industry

Matthew 5:

28 But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to desire her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

(NET Bible®)

Let us start with the obvious: Christians shouldn’t be running whorehouses or “gentlemen’s clubs,” nor should they go into the pornography business. Duh.

But what about a Christian owner of a convenience store or grocery store: should one stock the almost-porn “lad’s magazines?” How about the hot rod magazines with the scantily clad models on the covers? How about muscle magazines? What of fashion/health magazines which give tips on how to get laid? What of Cosmopolitan?

What if you own a television station or cable channel? Can you run programming which glorifies extramarital sexual activities? Can you run soap operas? James Bond movies? And what could you stock if you owned a video rental store?

To what degree could you sell intoxicants? Wine and beer were definitely allowed under Biblical Law within reason. There were even drink offerings [Exodus 29:40], so you can treat your body as a temple [1 Corinthians 19] and still have a drink. But what about marijuana? Is that a “strange incense” [Exodus 30:9]? How about tobacco? And what of hallucinogens? Does dealing in LSD or magic mushrooms constitute sorcery?

Then there is gambling. I know of no direct prohibition on gambling in the Bible, but I can think of some indirect admonitions which would prelude running a fully optimized gambling establishment. Run a casino with mind-numbing sensory overload, lots of alcohol, and no closing time, and you are preying on the weak of will. Run advertisements featuring money showering down on the lucky and you can end up preying on the stupid.

I hope some of the restrictions above are overkill. But if they are not, getting rich in the entertainment industry is indeed a challenge for a Christian. On the other hand, if Christians stay out of the entertainment industry or stick to overtly religious bookstores and TV channels, then the entertainment industry is left in the hand of others. Look around to see the results.

(This is the theme I keep coming back to in this series: if Christians handicap themselves too much in the name of spiritual purity, then even the once-Christian nations of the earth are placed in the control of non-Christian governments and other institutions. Where does the balance point lie between effective action and spiritual purity?)

An Inconvenient Sabbath

Exodus 20:

8 "Remember the Sabbath day to set it apart as holy.

9 For six days you may labor and do all your work,

10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God; on it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, or your male servant, or your female servant, or your cattle, or the resident foreigner who is in your gates.

(NET Bible®)

What happens when you operate a retail business six days a week in a society with no blue laws, and your competitors are operating seven days a week? Expect some lost revenue. That said, some prominent Christian owned chains such as Chick Fil’A do just that and manage to prosper.

But how about closing down on the actual Biblical Sabbath? The Sabbath runs from Friday at sunset to Saturday at sunset. This is inconvenient indeed if you want to run a retail business. Saturday is a peak shopping day. Friday night is one of the busiest times for dining out and entertainment.

And what about running a utility: a power company, a phone company, or Internet service? What of gas stations? If you get really really picky on this, you either exclude yourself certain businesses or cause a great deal of inconvenience for others. (Then again, if we as a society took the Sabbath seriously, we would already have alternative energy, and would be considerably more prepared to deal with assorted disruptions…)

Money Lending

Exodus 22:

25 "If you lend money to any of my people who are needy among you, do not be like a moneylender to him; do not charge him interest.

Deuteronomy 23:

19 You must not charge interest on a loan to your fellow Israelite, whether on money, food, or anything else that has been loaned with interest.

20 You may lend with interest to a foreigner, but not to your fellow Israelite; if you keep this command the LORD your God will bless you in all you undertake in the land you are about to enter to possess

(NET Bible®)

Can a Christian be a banker? Biblical Law forbade the charging of interest to fellow Hebrews, but the Bible also encouraged lending at interest to foreigners. Should Christians follow this example?

This is a tricky conundrum that the Christian world has wrestled with for millennia. Credit is incredibly useful. And since we have inflation and easy bankruptcy, any kind of money lending without interest contains a major gift component. Christians should make such gifts to the poor, of course. But what about loans to successful businesses? What about home mortgages to the upper middle class? What of credit cards?

In these days of the income tax, civil asset forfeiture, and the surveillance state, doing business in cash is effectively illegal in the United States. Keep your business below the radar or use the interest-based financial system is the law of the land. (Are such things the fulfillment of the Number of the Beast prophecy? I don’t know.)

Even a more reasonable extrapolation of these ancient laws runs into trouble. Suppose you interpret the admonition as being merely against high interest loans to the poor. (Poverty makes one a bad credit risk, thus requiring high interest to offset those who fail to pay. But the high interest rates lead to failure to pay…It’s a vicious cycle.) Running a rent-to-own store selling luxury goods is definitely out. Such businesses encourage the poor to buy what they clearly cannot afford at prices higher than the better off pay (once you figure in interest). In our wealthy society there is a bounty of used furniture, electronics, and automobiles available.

Payday lending is another questionable business. But note the trade-offs! Legal payday lenders put loan sharks out of business. And if this business is dominated by the truly unethical, would not the poor be better off if someone better entered the business?

Maybe we need some non-profits offering credit to the poor at a loss. Or maybe we need some for profit Christian businesses to compete against the sleazier lenders to offer less-bad deals. I don’t know.

Honest Business Dealings

Proverbs 11:

1 The LORD abhors dishonest scales, but an accurate weight is his delight.

Proverbs 19:

1 Better is a poor person who walks in his integrity than one who is perverse in his speech and is a fool.

5 A false witness will not go unpunished, and the one who spouts out lies will not escape punishment.

22 What is desirable for a person is to show loyal love, and a poor person is better than a liar.

Proverbs 20:

17 Bread gained by deceit tastes sweet to a person,

but afterward his mouth will be filled with gravel.

(NET Bible®)

Proverbs, a book compiled by the richest person in the Bible, has many admonitions against dishonesty in the course of business – and life in general. And this is a book containing many wealth-building tips, so Christians who aspire to wealth should play double-plus attention to this restriction.

On the upside, being honest frequently pays. Not only does blatantly dishonest dealing get you in trouble with the law, a bad reputation can cost more than the benefits of cheating.

I said frequently, not always. There are many sneaky borderline dishonest business practices which do pay well, most of which are legal as long as they meet certain technical requirements. Let us consider a few:

  • Brand manipulation. Build a brand making a very high quality product. Then stealthily lower the quality. Reap profits!
  • High pressure sales. Don’t just show off the benefits of your product. Play a host of mind games to manipulate your customers/victims into buying your product whether it is appropriate for them or not. This is a very common procedure in the auto sales business.
  • Deceptive junk mail covers. I regularly get official looking mail that looks like a bill or a government document that is actually a sales pitch in disguise. Then there are the auto dealers which send out what look like scratch and win sweepstakes but if you very, very, very carefully read the fine print, you find that a winning number isn’t.
  • False urgency. Offer ends in 24 hours! See the timer ticking (on web sites). Usually, the exact same offer comes back immediately afterwards.
  • Fake review sites. Affiliate marketing is not inherently dishonest, but making ad copy which looks like an objective review is questionable without very visible disclaimers. And it is definitely dishonest if you haven’t tried the product and/or the review does not match your own experience with it. (And yes, the FTC is cracking down on some of the worse abuses here.)
  • Black/grey hat SEO. Is fooling the search engines fraud? (Confession: I have done some grey hat tricks at times and profited. After reading Proverbs recently, I’m beginning to clean up my act.)
  • Gambling disguised as auctions. There is/was a site which advertised fancy electronics for pennies on the dollar. The catch was that it is/was an auction site where you pay what you bid even if you don’t win.
  • Hidden prices/conditions. For many services, such as phone, Internet, and financial services, the advertised price deviates substantially from what you have to pay after all the miscellaneous charges are thrown in. The government has cracked down on some of these games, but by no means all.
  • Milking the government for contracts, subsidies and/or special tax breaks. Much of what the government does is for the public interest, but quite a bit of government spending and tax breaks are really just gifts to the politically connected – crime made legal. Should you get your “fair share?”

Wow! This is a big list, and it is not complete. Here is the conundrum: if your competitors are doing these things to the point where you cannot compete and stay in business, should you quit? Or is it sufficient to simply set a less bad standard? Personal example: if a crappy made for AdSense site has spammed its way to the top of the search engine results, just how evil is it to use similar techniques to push a more legit page to displace it? I have gone back and forth on that one.

Land Accumulation

Leviticus 25:

23 The land must not be sold without reclaim because the land belongs to me, for you are foreigners and residents with me.

24 In all your landed property you must provide for the right of redemption of the land.

25 " 'If your brother becomes impoverished and sells some of his property, his near redeemer is to come to you and redeem what his brother sold.

26 If a man has no redeemer, but he prospers and gains enough for its redemption,

27 he is to calculate the value of the years it was sold, refund the balance to the man to whom he had sold it, and return to his property.

28 If he has not prospered enough to refund a balance to him, then what he sold will belong to the one who bought it until the jubilee year, but it must revert in the jubilee and the original owner may return to his property.

29 " 'If a man sells a residential house in a walled city, its right of redemption must extend until one full year from its sale; its right of redemption must extend to a full calendar year.

30 If it is not redeemed before the full calendar year is ended, the house in the walled city will belong without reclaim to the one who bought it throughout his generations; it will not revert in the jubilee.

31 The houses of villages, however, which have no wall surrounding them must be considered as the field of the land; they will have the right of redemption and must revert in the jubilee.

(NET Bible®)

If you have land or capital, you can rent either out, and use the money to buy more. This produces a feedback loop that separates the rich from the rest of us – including the not so productive rich. For capital, there is a societal benefit: when capital accumulates the marginal return drops – a greater share goes to labor.

Land, on the other hand, is largely fixed. The Bible makes this distinction with the Jubilee Laws. When Canaan was conquered, the Hebrews divided up the farmland roughly equally. Your share could not be sold in perpetuity. You could rent your share out, but upon the year of Jubilee, it reverted to you or your descendants. This prevented a parasitic aristocracy from arising.

Now here is the question: to what extent can Christians make money as landlords? Is buying up mass quantities of farmland permissible?

Note that land within walled cities could be sold outright. I assume this is because the capital component was high compared to the raw land component. So I assume that some kinds of real estate speculation are permissible. If you build a grocery store or movie theater and rent out the surrounding land, much of the rental value of that land is due to the traffic you generate from said store or theater.

The value of farmland, on the other hand, is largely due to climate, slope, etc. That is, God created value. On the other hand, the U.S. is not the Holy Land [see Leviticus 25:23]…

Worker Exploitation

James 5:

1 Come now, you rich! Weep and cry aloud over the miseries that are coming on you.

2 Your riches have rotted and your clothing has become moth-eaten.

3 Your gold and silver have rusted and their rust will be a witness against you. It will consume your flesh like fire. It is in the last days that you have hoarded treasure!

4 Look, the pay you have held back from the workers who mowed your fields cries out against you, and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.

5 You have lived indulgently and luxuriously on the earth. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter.

(NET Bible®)

The market for labor is a bit weird. Since the marginal value of a dollar vs. an hour of leisure goes down as you get wealthier as a rule, you often have to motivate high dollar workers with intrinsic job satisfaction, pleasant working conditions, etc. For low paid workers in the absence of a welfare system, each dollar is worth time and even outright unpleasantness. The lower the pay, the more value each dollar is. In other words, lower pay can result in a greater supply of labor!

This is a recipe for exploiting low-wage workers. History bears this out.

It also means that various labor protections, minimum wages, etc. can sometimes work without creating unemployment.

But the conservative counter-argument is worth remembering: if you push wages and/or benefits above productivity, then layoffs will occur. If you treat employers as criminals or as branches of the welfare state, then you discourage people from employing.

There is a balance somewhere, but it’s not always easy to find.

Exactly what the government laws should be regarding labor is a subject for a future series. I would note that we do have laws in effect which cut down the worse abuses. The welfare system keeps people from being in extreme desperation for work. Overtime laws reduce the ability to exploit the backward bending supply curve for labor. (But note that mandating per employee overhead such as health insurance for all full time workers creates an incentive to make full time workers do overtime. Oops!) So perhaps we can partially disregard this admonition a defer some of the responsibility to the government.

But still, let us look at some other Biblical commandments regarding labor and decide if there are any takeaways for modern Christian capitalists in developed countries.

Bait and Switch Pay Rate

Deuteronomy 24:

15 You must pay his wage that very day before the sun sets, for he is poor and his life depends on it. Otherwise he will cry out to the LORD against you, and you will be guilty of sin.

(NET Bible®)

In The Treasure of Sierra Madre, Humphrey Bogart’s character starts out as a bum. Then he gets hired to work for a period of time. He gets fed, but his employer cannot pay monetary wages until after the work is done and he goes to the bank – whereupon he disappears. Alas, variations on this scam are all too common, especially in poorer parts of the world. Read Mother Jones for examples. Throw in high setup costs, such as moving to another country, and you have a recipe for borderline slave labor.

(This may be the “pay you have held back” that St. James was referring to in Verse 4 above. The King James Version of this verse includes the word fraud. But he might have been making a more general statement here if the other translations I have read are correct.)

The Bible had a brute force check on such abuse: employers were to pay at the end of the day. Yes, an employer might get away with stealing a day’s labor, under such a system, but that’s a cap on a particularly evil form of abuse.

Here in the developed world, such blatant abuses are rare, but variations on the theme still occur. Can a Christian capitalist do any of the following:

  • Run a business where employees work mainly for a “prize” which only some get?
  • Run a business using rotating interns for labor?
  • Stretch entry level wages until employees balk or quit?

Don’t get me wrong. Experience can be valuable, and experienced employees can be several times as productive as entry level in many fields. Giving someone a chance by offering a low starting wage to see how he works out is a good thing. But if it only takes six months to get up to speed, requiring five+ years of seniority to get a decent wage maybe isn’t so fair. For many occupations, productivity as a function of experience looks something like this:

Typical orker productivity vs. experience

Yet salaries often look more like this:

Seniority based wages vs. experience

If you believe in traditional family values, make pay better match productivity for such jobs. The old 1950s ideal of the husband bringing home the paycheck while the wife takes care of the house and children requires that young men be able to earn enough to support a family. Our current system of astronomical college costs, undue requirements for college, and seniority-based wages tell the young to put off marriage and family – just screw around for a decade and then get married. Either that, or require both parents to work and let grandparents and/or daycare facilities raise the kids.

(As for saving for retirement, it makes perfectly good sense for both members of a couple to work after the kids have grown up.)

Reasonable Work Hours

Exodus 21:

2 "If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years, but in the seventh year he will go out free without paying anything.

3 If he came in by himself he will go out by himself; if he had a wife when he came in, then his wife will go out with him.

(NET Bible®)

OK, we don’t have slavery (prison population excepted), but we do have quite a few free workers tasked to work all sorts of family-unfriendly hours. Also bad: many retail establishments now dynamically schedule workers to match customer flow. This is quite convenient for consumers, but can be a nightmare for those with children. (See this Pacific Standard article.)

Now go back and reconsider the earlier passage about paying when the sun sets. It implies that work ends when the sun sets as well. True, the passage was written for a civilization which didn’t have anything better than oil lamps for working at night, so I might be reading too much into it. But throw in the Sabbath laws, and I dare say that the spirit of the Law does hint at limiting work hours to something reasonable.

Today, some work does require shiftwork. And there are people who enjoy working weird hours (myself included). So I cannot derive any blanket admonition here. But it’s something to think about.

In Conclusion

I do not know how many of the above constraints apply to modern Christians. If all of them, then becoming rich as a Christian would be difficult indeed. But as I keep saying, if all sincere Christians avoid serious monetary success, then the institutions of our society fall into the hands of non Christians. So either Christians need to get very good at pooling their money to fund institutions without the help of the rich, or they need to allow some to do some serious wealth building.

One possibility is to look at the B Corporation movement for inspiration. When it comes to worker exploitation, environmental impact, moral compromises, etc. there is generally a profitability curve that resembles the Laffer Curve for taxes. Consider wages and working conditions. If you are a jerk of a boss, you can get work out of your employees while scrimping on the pay and benefits. But at some point strikes, turnover, and/or employee disloyalty take a toll – especially in modern welfare states where the safety net dampens the effect of the backward-bending supply curve for labor. On the other hand, if you try to create a great place to work, your extra employee costs can be offset by improved loyalty, reduced turnover, etc. But there is a limit. Eventually, the marginal benefits of employee are offset by the marginal costs of employee benefits. We get a curve like this:

Corporate profits as a function of the generosity of wages and benefits

I could draw a similar curve for environmental impact. A green company gets some extra customer loyalty and less harassment by federal bureaucrats, etc. But solar power, organic food and so forth are still expensive.

I could do the same for honesty in sales pitches. A truly honest company will get kudos from consumer groups, and good reviews will offset some of the sales lost by those who assume your sales pitch has to include some dishonest spin since that is the norm.

And the same goes for morals. You can run a convenience store without selling porn. And quality Christian themed/compatible movies sell very well these days given how Hollywood is under producing such.

Finding the maximum of any of these curves is a challenge. I think it is fair to say that Christian businesses should aspire to err on the right side of the maxima. Maybe we cannot be perfect and do profitable business, but we can pull things toward the better.

Whether that suffices is an exercise I leave to the reader.